The Lie of the Land

Language and how we use it.
April 2 1998 3:30 AM

The Lie of the Land

Equivocations, deceptions, fibs, and other forms of not telling the truth.

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In the extremely difficult situations being considered, there is no mutual trust or confidence to destroy. In fact, a maximum of distrust prevails between the parties, and no man in such a position could prudently take the words of the other at their face value. In such a case, words would cease, to a degree, to be a medium for the exchange of thought. Communication would be broken down, and to the extent in which communication of mind with mind has become impossible, it would be equally impossible to realize the idea of a lie. ... [It] seems incontestable that if no communication in the ordinary sense of the word is possible, there can be no lie.

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Not all falsehoods, of course, are lies (the key ingredient in a lie is intentionality). Nor are all lies deceptions--some lies are told without any intention to deceive ("You've lost weight!" "Let's do lunch!"). Moreover, some deceptions are, technically, not lies, theologically speaking: "A person could tell a truth with sufficient clarity to avoid making a false statement and sufficient ambiguity and evasiveness to avoid revealing a truth which he wants to keep hidden." (For instance, if you're a presidential candidate and are asked if you have ever smoked marijuana, and you have, but only in England, you might reply that you have broken no state laws.) A statement that successfully picks its way across this dangerous terrain is said to exhibit an economy of truth, and a person who has uttered such a statement is said to have been economical with the truth. These characterizations, too, were originally conferred with a sense of professional appreciation (I first heard them on the lips of some Jesuit friends), but they have also been pulled out of truth's orbit and into the atmosphere of mendacity. Today an economy of truth sometimes just means "a lie," albeit one whose seriousness may be debatable. Julie Burchill wrote recently in the Guardian, "The idea that one party has to overcome the 'natural' resistance of the other party to sexual intercourse by a combination of gifts and being economical with the truth takes us perilously near to date-rape territory."

The concept of aneconomy of truth may have lost its purity, but it retains considerable utility. If nothing else, it adds a timely new dimension to the hortatory reminder "It's the economy, stupid."

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.